Is My Scrum Master Helping or Hindering?
Scrum Team, Klean Denmark
I started working with several Agile teams in the same organization who switched to Agile at about the same time. While there have been some consistencies in the coaching and mentoring they receive, they have had dramatically different experiences, particularly in their successes and challenges.
One thing I have been wondering about is the impact a Scrum Master has on the abilities of a team.
- How large a role does a Scrum Master play in a teams’ effectiveness?
- Are there behaviours a Scrum Master exhibits that encourages a team to succeed and improve?
- Can a Scrum Master hinder the growth and success of a team?
My experiences lead me to conclude that a Scrum Master, despite being a ‘servant’ to a team, plays an integral part in the effectiveness and success of an agile team. The size of their impact depends upon the maturity of the team and the organization. A team that has been working together for a long time, is disciplined in their efforts, and is largely successful may need less from a Scrum Master than a newly formed team. Newly formed teams may need someone to provide guidance in their efforts to adopt agile practices, improve their skills and practices, and keep them focused on what success looks like.
In observing the day-to-day interactions and behaviours of a team and its Scrum Master, it is feasible to measure some level of effectiveness of the Scrum Master. Until recently in my own experiences, I wasn’t sure this was possible or even worthwhile. Assessments can be misguided, but can be helpful if used appropriately in the right situations. I realized that opportunities abounded in my situation, and could prove helpful in determining if a Scrum Master was a factor in why a team was struggling.
So what signs can you look for that may indicate whether a Scrum Master is helping or hindering the success of a team? From my own experiences, I selected five potential categories for assessment, and identified different behaviours and characteristics that could be observed in the Scrum Master and the Team.
The Self-Organizing Team
Admittedly, this category is worth looking at more in-depth to truly grasp and understand it. For the purpose of this entry I will simplify it as: When a team is truly self-managed / self-directed / self-organizing, they are able to successfully manage the teams work and processes, and participate in organization-wide systems and strategies. It is in reality much more than that though.
When a team is successfully self-organizing, the Scrum Master:
- Encourages the Team to self-organize and self-manage.
- Understands when to step in and coach the team in solving problems, and when to let the team work through problems on their own.
- Guides the team in disciplined work ethic, retrospectives, and improvements – but only if the team really needs it.
- Does not direct or manage the work, the tasks, or the people at any time.
- Does not commit to work on behalf of the team.
Scrum, Klean Denmark
When a team is successfully self-organizing, the Team demonstrates decision-making and ownership. For example they:
- Negotiate, decide on, and accept what work will be done in the sprint.
- Figure out how to best use all team members to complete all the work agreed to during the sprint.
- Report to each other, not the Scrum Master or Product Owner (in daily stand-up, retrospective, etc…).
- Support one another completely.
- Take responsibility for issues, concerns, and in completing stories end-to-end in a sprint.
- Make technical decisions as a team.
- Make ‘how to’ and process decisions as a team.
- Utilize retrospectives to reflect, learn, and grow as a team.
The Scrum Master Serves Team & Product Owner
If an Agile adoption is progressing successfully, the Scrum Master supports the teams efforts, protects them from outside distractions, and provides whatever services the team needs to succeed. In some cases, the Scrum Master may also support the efforts of the product owner, but only when not in conflict with the teams’ needs. While the team and Product Owner work together to succeed on a project, they have different interests in their roles. Similarly with the Scrum Master and Product Owner.
To assess whether the Scrum Master is acting to serve a team, observe whether they:
- Protect the Team from outside distractions.
- Quickly remove impediments for the Team.
- Allow the Team to make mistakes, while facilitating and supporting their success.
- Facilitate productivity through improved tools, practices, and process improvements.
- Guide and enhance the reflection and learning opportunities within the team.
- Support the Team and Product Owner in following Scrum Principles.
- Surrender control to the Team so they decide what/how/when/who.
- If appropriate, when supporting the Product Owner, they similarly surrender control to them in relation to their role – but only if not in conflict with the teams’ interests.
If a Team is utilizing their Scrum Master appropriately, they will:
- Give impediments to the Scrum Master to unblock – they trust that they will be removed quickly.
- Allow the Scrum Master to track progress and communicate information for the team – they trust it will be done accurately and timely.
- Respect the guidance of the Scrum Master when provided, as they trust that it is provided only when they don’t have the skills needed.
A critical aspect of Agile is clear and open communication by all stakeholders. Agile will not succeed if people restrict who has access to what information, and there is a reliance on pulling of information, instead of pushing it. The Scrum Master is critical in ensuring that information is pushed in various directions: into the Team, out of the Team, and within the Team.
In an organization where communication is transparent, and specifically so for the Team, the Scrum Master will:
- Disseminate information across stakeholders, including: the Team, product owner, management, and others.
- Provide a variety of statistical information about how the team is doing (historical velocity, current velocity, escaped bug counts, etc..).
- Provide visible project progress & successes (impediment backlog, sprint backlog, burndown chart).
- Ensure everyone on the project is up to speed at all times.
- Be the communication hub – they push information out, so others don’t have to pull.
Scrum Collaboration, Klean Denmark
Collaboration is key in Agile organizations. Developers collaborate openly and consistently with testers, product owners collaborate with all Team members, and Team members collaborate with customers. In a healthy collaborative environment, people are respectful of one another, seek out other ideas and perspectives, are empowered to make decisions, and solve problems creatively and quickly.
To support the creation and maintenance of a collaborative environment, the Scrum Master will:
- Encourage team members to collaborate frequently (to understand requirements, design software, test software, investigate issues,…)
- Let the Team figure things out on their own, when they are skilled to do so.
- When the Team is not skilled to do so, use coaching techniques like ‘questioning’ to draw solutions and ideas out of the Team, NOT provide them with solutions/answers.
When the Team is collaborating well, they will:
- Come up with options, alternatives, and creative ideas on their own.
- See more balanced contributions from team members, rather than seeing the same people making the largest contributions.
- See skills transferred amongst team members so people are able to take on any task.
- See that there are fewer specialists, and more skilled generalists on the Team.
- Work closely with other stakeholders as needed without encouragement.
Most businesses need to feel and see tangible results to believe that an organization is doing the best job possible. It comes down to the bottom line – return on investment, visible metrics to show improvement & success, and sales figures. When a Scrum Master is doing their job to support and enhance the success of a Team, there will be visible results that the executive team can happily track to if desired.
When the Team is successful, the Scrum Master is usually doing their job properly. In this case stakeholders will see that the Team is:
- Able to meet their deadlines and level of quality as negotiated and agreed to with product owner. This results in improved business value, which can be measured through:
- Improved time to market
- Improved customer satisfaction
- Fewer technical support calls
- Able to reliably predict their results, which can be measured through:
- Deadlines being met
- No excess overtime or unbalanced workloads across team
- People not burning out
- No vacation restrictions necessary
- Making time for product, skills, and knowledge improvements throughout sprints. This results in:
- Decreased time to market
- Increased customer satisfaction
- Improved skill sets
- Improved return and satisfaction on employee surveys
Using these selected categories, characteristics, and behaviours to assess the effectiveness of a Scrum Master I have been able to pinpoint whether they help or hinder the team they are working with. It is important though to consider the specific context of a situation, as there may be other factors that are influencing the effectiveness and success of a Team. It may not be the Scrum Master at all – so be careful to consider the whole picture when making such assessments.
What Do You Think?
Are there other categories, measures, or signs can you think of that will help you determine if a Scrum Master is helping or hindering a team? What are your thoughts on what I have noted from my experiences?
While these have helped me with the teams I have worked with, your own experiences may highlight something entirely different. I would love to hear from you!
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*Note: This post is a carryover from an old blog, posted 11/15/09 at selenadelesie.com. I’m reposting in it’s original form, as it may be of interest to some people.
Comments from the original post
Henrik Kniberg November 21st, 2009 at 2:33 am
The Scrum Master can have a huge impact on the team, positive or negative. Just like any leader. In small teams or teams that have been doing Scrum for a long time the role tends to fade away, which I see as a positive sign. The best sign of a good Scrum Master is that he has made his own role redundant by creating a truly self-organizing team.
You framed this post in the context of how to do assessments, but this is in fact an incredibly concise and valuable leadership guide for Scrum Masters and any others leaders in similar roles. Good job!
Manuel Küblböck November 22nd, 2009 at 2:25 am
Really nice post. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks.
I especially like your point about the Scrum Master not committing to work on behalf of the team. It has always been obvious to me, but I’ve never seen it stated anywhere like this. In my role as Scrum Master I’ve been invited to meetings with project managers where I was expected to do exactly that. At the time I pointed out that this is the function of the Sprint Planning Meeting (with the entire team). The underlying reason is of course the commitment of the team rather than of the Scrum Master. Thanks for pointing out the obvious.
I will also try to take your advice on questioning to draw solutions rather than providing solutions. I guess, I haven’t been very good at this.
As for “other measures” for how to tell if your Scrum Master is doing a good job the following about your team members comes to mind:
- your team members are having fun doing their job
- your team is proud when presenting the achievements of the last sprint at the sprint demo
- your team members are able to focus on one task at a time and keep work in progress to a minimum
Selena November 22nd, 2009 at 11:24 am
Henrik – Thrilled that you think highly of this post, and see it as valuable from another perspective, thank you!
Manuel – Great additions to the measures! All important behaviours, and often not specifically called out in teams as an indication of their strength and success.
niclas.lindgren December 18th, 2009 at 8:37 pm
Henrik – I think you need to consider your wording on a scrum master being a leader. He is not a leader, merely catalyst or facilitator. I would actually say that it is very important he isn’t leading anything, he should not be seen as a leader by the team and he should not view himself as a leader of a team.
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